By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
SANTA FE, N.M. - When Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng heard in 1991 that Madame Mao had hanged herself in prison, he knew it was the stuff of opera.
Sheng's powerful new opera, Madame Mao, had its highly anticipated world premiere to a standing-room-only crowd July 26 at Santa Fe Opera. Composed to a libretto by the respected director Colin Graham, who also staged it, Madame Mao is one of the most important and courageous operas of the last 25 years.
Santa Fe Opera's legacy of commissioning and premiering new opera goes back to Igor Stravinsky's residency here in the late '50s and '60s. New Mexican John Crosby, who died in December, founded the company in 1957.
The creators painted an unremittingly scathing picture of Madame Mao (Jiang Ching), one of China's "Gang of Four," who achieved notoriety for her power, influence and cruelty during the Cultural Revolution. After her husband, Mao Zedong, died, she was convicted in 1981 of "counter-revolutionary crimes," and imprisoned. She was 77 when she committed suicide.
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Sheng planned not to write a "CNN opera," such as John Adams' Nixon in China, but to try to get inside the head of Jiang Ching, a woman who rose from B-grade actress to the most powerful - and feared - woman in China. To emphasize her split personality, he and Graham cast two extraordinary singing actresses in the lead role: mezzo Robynne Redmon as the older Jiang, and soprano Anna Christy as the young Jiang.
She was 20 years younger than Mao when they married. Jiang Ching's claim to fame was the role of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, a role that frames the opera. In the end, it is Nora's words that the young and old Jiang speak together: "And so we'll see who's right - The world or I."
"I don't expect the audience to be sympathetic to her, but maybe empathetic at the end of the story - understanding how she became such a person, and what she was," says Sheng, a 47-year-old professor at the University of Michigan.
The curtain rose on a minimalist set by Neil Patel - an open frame in the soaring, 2,100-seat, open-air theater at 7,500 feet. (Oxygen is kept in the wings for opera singers, who have been known to faint onstage from the elevation.)
Madame Mao's corpse swung gently from the rafters. As an effective device, the action moved as a two-way street: Jiang Ching looked backward from her suicide to her early career in Act I; Act II moved forward to her "white-boned demon" years, her trial and death.
The composer's demands stretched the singers to their limit, with high-altitude leaps of more than an octave and vocal lines that often climaxed in a scream. Sex and high crimes propelled the tale, which Graham painted with sometimes overblown prose.
Wearing a severe "People's Party" pantsuit and retro eyeglasses, with her fist raised, Redman communicated a formidable image of the older woman. She handled her taxing, jagged music spectacularly, even in Madame Mao's most chilling moment - coolly executing victims of the Cultural Revolution.
Other times, the music softened into seductive lyricism, such as an Act I love duet between Mao (Alan Opie) and the young Jiang. Sheng's Mozart-like vocal ensembles were especially well crafted. His gift for melody was evident in Jiang's lullaby, "Sleep my Baby," reflecting her abuse and betrayal by men. It was a rare moment that stood still, and Christy sang it with deep emotion.
Sheng's eclectic musical language ranged from tongue-in-cheek, Ravel-like waltzes (one, a dance of lust, in which Chairman Mao's dance partners stripped down to their bras and slips) to moments that echoed Bernstein. Brilliantly orchestrated, it was colored with pentatonic melodies and wisps of Chinese folk tunes.
Crashing cymbals, gongs and slithering violins announced two brightly choreographed Chinese opera scenes, spectacles of pageantry and color within an otherwise drab-gray opera. In his company debut, Mark Duffin, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, carried off the strenuous high-pitched role of Chinese opera's elaborately gowned Emperor Gao with aplomb, and also appeared as the Director, Jiang's early lover.
Jiang's rejection - first from the philandering Mao, then from Party members - turned to revenge, and later, to her quest for power, as Mao faded to an old man. Opie, a meaty-voiced Mao, left an impression with the leader's dying words, "Great men are all the fools of time. ..." In the final scene, his taunting ex-wife, ZhiZhen (Kelly Kaduce), returned to haunt him.
The excellent chorus (including CCM's Audrey Luna) served as accusers, rifle-toting guerillas and "The Committee" - though some of their choreography (Lily Cai) smacked of West Side Story's Sharks and Jets. Graham's staging, which included a lithe dance corps, was arresting, and conductor John Fiore's orchestra boldly underscored the drama.
Madame Mao repeats Aug. 8 and 14. Tickets: (800) 280-4654 or www.santafeopera.org. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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